Architecture in the Overshoot: Design and Temporal Dysphoria in Times of Transition

Daniel Barber, The Times of a Just Transition
Project status

In terms of climate instability and carbon emissions, the next half-century or so is the period of “the overshoot” (Climate Analytics 2021). This is also, more or less, the lifespan of buildings currently on boards or under construction. Architects and planners need to be designing for the overshoot, though the challenges are many.

What is the overshoot? It is the scenario under which prominent global organizations propose to manage the relationship between economic stability and climate disruption. The plan is to continue emitting CO2 (with some reductions unevenly committed to or acted upon) while relying on the future development of carbon-capture technologies to draw those emissions back out of the atmosphere in the future. In other words, the agreed upon limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius will be overshot, possibly by a few degrees, in hopes that carbon removal technologies can later reduce CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Such removal technologies are untested at scale (Goglio et. al. 2020). However, even if they work, the plan is that the next few decades will see more-or-less business as usual in terms of carbon emissions. Disruptions to familiar climate patterns and to the lives and livelihoods of millions will continue and increase in intensity.

Buildings are an essential media for managing the overshoot (Barber 2020a). The profession has generally gone along with net-zero and other eco-modernist frameworks because, in parallel to carbon’s challenge to the economy, the challenge to architecture is existential, overwhelming (Carlisle 2020). The permission structure of the overshoot means that regulators and policy makers, manufacturers, and the building industry have little incentive to call for, legislate, or provide materially for the dramatic changes needed to mitigate climate disruptions (IPCC 2022). Buildings are still being built according to last century’s methods, rather than according to the new methods and materials needed to address the concerns of the present and future (Cogdell 2018).

The overshoot exaggerates the temporal dysphoria that characterizes the challenge of the climate emergency: that our actions in the present haunt the future; that historical developments of carbon dependence make the present difficult to change (Buck 2021, Buck 2022). It also exaggerates the civilizational caesura of cheap and available carbon fuels: architects today are looking to the period before fossil fuels in order to design for life after fossil fuels (Yusoff 2022, Escobar 2015). The present disappears, as the methods and techniques of the recent past becomes models for designing and imagining the future (Barber 2020a).

My project aims to draw attention to how this multiplicity of temporalities in the history of architecture manifests in relation to sustainable architecture. Could we better address the challenges of sustainable architecture through just knowledge transitions that sometimes run backward - from the new to the old; from the modern to the customary; from hi-tech to tacit knowledge (Aviv 2019, Barber 2020a, Watson 2019).

In my research for The Times of Just Transitions I will explore the challenge of the overshoot focusing on three frameworks: (1) Stranded Assets, which explores how icons of modern architecture will become increasingly uninhabitable due to their reliance on fossil fuels (Barber 2020b); (2) Thermal Practices, which examines the changing role for design practices as they design for an unpredictable future (Shove and Spurling 2013); and (3) Emergency Exit, which focuses squarely on the cries of urgency, and their complex effects, in a profession such as architecture that takes a lot of time (Barber 2019a).

As part of The Times of Just Transition I propose to convene a series of lectures and workshops in Sydney, Australia, to address this complex transition in both practice and pedagogy. The ambition is to bring together students, architects, indigenous architects and landscape architects, policy makers and artists to consider the generational, epistemological, and temporal challenges of the just transition for architects, asking questions such as: How can architects engage in the temporary dysphoria of the overshoot? Given that most buildings being designed today will be built during the overshoot, how can urgent changes be made to building industry practices? How is this imperative for urgency frustrated and problematized by Designing for Country, and more general cautions by which a state of emergency leads to more, rather than less, equity and opportunity for marginalized communities. The first year of funding will support course release to research, frame, and prepare the workshop; the second year of funding will support the workshop itself; the third year will support course release and/or research assistance to write a peer-reviewed paper summarizing the findings and challenges from the workshop.

Like many other professions, and despite some significant movement at the margins, architecture as a profession and a discipline has struggled to face the intensity of changes needed to adapt its practices to a post-carbon world (Barber 2019b). This workshop and research proposal will encourage focused discussion on the immediate need for dramatic professional change, and will do so through addressing a related imperative – to bring in voices that have traditionally been left out of design and development decisions (Cheng, Davis and Wilson 2020, Kombumerri 2020). Framing this around the generational and epistemological relations to time allows for both of these cutting-edge ambitions to be met.

References Cited

Aviv, Dorit. 2019. “No Longer an Object: Thermodynamics and New Dimensions of Architectural Design.” 107th ACSA Annual Meeting: Black Box Proceedings. Pittsburgh, PA.

Barber, Daniel A. 2019a. “Emergency Exit” on e-flux Architecture (September 11, 2019), part of the series on Overgrowth.

Barber, Daniel A. 2019b. “After Comfort” in Log 47 (2019)

Barber, Daniel A. 2020a. Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning (Princeton University Press).

Barber, Daniel A. 2020b. “Stranded Assets” in Mailbritt Pedersen Zari, Peter Connolly, et. al., editors, Ecologies Design: Transforming Architecture, Landscape and Urbanism (Routledge, 2020): 260-267.

Buck, Holly Jean. 2021. Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net-Zero is Not Enough (Verso).

Buck, Holly Jean. 2022. “Climate Hauntologies: notes on reading carbon removal through Mark Fisher” in Medium (April 2, 2022).

Carlisle, Stephanie. 2020. “I’ve been polluting the planet for years. I’m not an oil exec, I’m an architect” in Fast Company (Jan 3, 2020)

Cheng, Irene, Charles Davis III and Mabel Wilson, editors, Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History (University of Pittsburgh Press).

Climate Analytics (Susan Bauer, Uta Klönne et. al.), 2021. The Science of Temperature Overshoots

Cogdell, Christina. 2018. Towards a Living Architecture: Complexism and Biology in Contemporary Design (University of Minnesota Press).

Escobar, Arturo. 2015. “Degrowth, postdevelopment, and transitions: a preliminary conversation” in Sustainability Science vol. 10, 451-462.

Goglio, P. A.G. Williams, et. al., “Advances and Challenges of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of greenhouse gas removal technologies to fight climate change” in Journal of Cleaner Production no. 244 (2020)

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2022. “Technical Summary” in Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change.

Kombumerri, Dillon and the Government Architect of New South Wales. 2020. “Designing with Country: Discussion Paper.”

Shove, Elizabeth and Nicola Spurling, editors. 2013. Sustainable Practices: Social Theory and Climate Change (Taylor and Francis).

Watson, Julia. 2019. Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (Taschen).

Yusoff, Kathryn. 2022. “Epochal Aesthetics: Affectual Infrastructures in the Anthropocene” in Nick Axel, Daniel A. Barber, et. al. editors, Accumulation: the Art, Architecture and Media of Climate Change (University of Minnesota Press).

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